Sunday, October 19, 2008

Getting the Big Things Right

I find myself in an odd position. I’m lucky enough to have others seek my advice as a speaker or consultant – but what I’m asked about most often are the least important aspects of philanthropy. I’m asked:

What are the secrets to a successful solicitation?
How do you know when to ask?
How do you go about getting appointments with top prospects?
When you’re with a prospect for the first time, how do you broach the topic of fund-raising?

You get the gist. Most people want to know about how to raise money and assume that the solicitation is the key. In fact, the solicitation is the least important part of the advancement process. The solicitation is a culmination of a process. If we are truly solicitous (in the sense of expressing care and concern) of our prospects from the outset, if we genuinely seek to understand what is most important to them and then align our institutional aspirations with their individual values, we immensely improve our chances of conducting a successful solicitation, no matter how nervous or maladroit we may be in “making the ask.” If we do not do those things, the solicitation, no matter how deft or moving it may be, has only a remote chance of success.

So, now that I have the opportunity and obligation to share what experience has taught me, I try to focus on that larger process and the cultural phenomena that shape it. I try to help others get the big things right so that they don’t waste so much time and effort on misconceived and misapplied tactics. For philanthropy-seeking organizations, the big things are:

1. Point to those you serve. Who are they? Why do they need our help? What is the state of the service you are now providing? What could it be? What is the larger difference you would like to make?

2. Compare the way you answer those questions to the way your donors and prospects answer them. Where are the big differences? Are some of the perceptions of your donors incomplete, uninformed or just false? If so, design a targeted, constituent-based marketing program to begin to systematically close those gaps through any and all means, including your President’s speeches and events. If you don’t know where these gaps are, you may be communicating what prospective donors already know and consider unimportant while failing to communicate what they think is most important to their philanthropic decisions. But, what if your donors have some negative perceptions of your organization that are essentially accurate, what then? Own up to them publicly and promulgate a plan to bring about improvements so that you can better serve. Pretending you don’t have flaws will frustrate your donors and make them feel as if they are being held at arm's length when, in fact, you want your most generous donors and most promising prospects to feel like insiders with a full and complete view of where your organization is and where it needs to be. If your organization were perfect, it wouldn’t need volunteer help and wouldn’t have a reason to raise money.

3. Engage donors and prospects by listening to what they believe to be important and what they hope to accomplish with their lives. Determine what you have in common before proposing how you can work together to achieve common goals.

4. Don’t do all the problem-solving or visioning on your own and then ask donors to support it. Involve them in the process; incorporate their analyses and advice. Create a sense of joint ownership right from the outset. True strategic planning is the means by which we shape our internal plans to meet external realities (both threats and opportunities). By bringing external experts and stakeholders in at the very being, we ensure that our plans will be truly strategic and capable of attracting support.

5. Make sure your current donors know how their gifts have been used to help do more for those you serve. Don’t just tell them the bucket that you put their money into but the people and the projects it enabled. Yes, donors want to be thanked and recognized but what they most need to know is where and how they made a difference. If they know that, and where a difference can still be made, they will give again.

Do these things and you will worry less about the solicitation -- and, when you conduct them, they will seem as a logical outgrowth of the discussion you have been having with your donors. They will also be much more successful.

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